Tony Vitello enters his second year as Tennessee’s head baseball coach the same guy he was when he took the job. Though he jokingly feels like he lost weight from all of the stress and says he now knows how to handle not both the media and umpires, Vitello views himself as the same person because of the time he spent around his dad.
“You work hard, and then when you get out there, you’re wasting your time if you don’t trust that hard work,” Vitello said on Monday afternoon. “You gotta grind in this sport. You can’t get lost in the innings or repetitions, so if you’re not out there giving your all, as the Tennessee signs say all over campus and all over our state, then you’re going to go home with some regrets.”
Part of the desire within the grind for Vitello is not only wanting to live without regrets, but that he wants to prepare like maniacs so that his team can have fun and play hard when game day rolls around.
Tennessee returns 22 players from last year’s team that finished 29-27 overall and 12-18 in SEC play. The Vols finished tied for 10th in the conference, missing out on the SEC Tournament for the second consecutive season, though the 12 conference wins were the most by Tennessee since 2014.
For Vitello, he wants to see incremental growth in the knowledge that the players have of the coaching staff heading into year two. Several of Tennessee’s coaches were doing things for the first time last season. Vitello wants to see that incremental growth in his staff as well in order to help affirm the culture being created.
“The returning players and the returning staff, there’s a gain there that will hopefully show up on the field,” Vitello said when asked about how returning 22 guys helps Tennessee build the culture he wants. “The returning players and the returning staff, there’s a gain there that will hopefully show up on the field. There’s no guarantees, but I’d like to think there’s going to be a climb with the program to a certain point where we say this is our standard, and there’s a standard to be met and not a huge gain to be made.”
Returning 22 players can help speed up the process of cementing a standard, specifically when the majority of those players were not only underclassmen, but key contributors. To Vitello, not only is it vital, but who it benefits the most is the newcomers to the program.
“Sometimes as a coach, when you say something to a player, it may not translate right away,” Vitello said. “But when you have somebody like Andre (Lipcius) or Jay (Charleston) relaying what you’re looking for or what we mean when we say something is invaluable, that’s been the difference that has been most noticeable.”
Over the summer, several of Tennessee’s players ventured off to multiple collegiate leagues and impressed.
Andre Lipcius and Garrett Stallings stood out in the Cape Cod League while Zach Daniels was one of the top sluggers in the Northwoods League. Chase Wallace, Jay Charleston, and Luc Lipcius impressed in the California Collegiate League, and Redmond Walsh was 3-0 with a 2.14 ERA in the Coastal Plain League.
“As far as the correlation from summer to fall and spring, it doesn’t always exist,” Vitello said of the Vols who impressed across the country during the summer. “I do think that it’s a common theme when someone improves and shows they’ve learned some lessons and gotten better in the summer. It typically carries over.
“I think the fact that we had some guys have some really nice summers is reason to be excited. It’s not a guarantee, but it’s reason to be excited.”
One of those guys who had a nice summer is Daniels. Entering his sophomore season as one of the Vols’ three main outfielders, Daniels slugged seven homers and 43 RBI in the Cape. After earning a spot in the league’s All-Star game, D1Baseball mentioned Daniels as a potential breakout player for 2019.
“The way that kid works, it’s only a matter of time of time before he has success,” Vitello said of Daniels. “Really, he’s already had it. He made a huge jump from fall to spring, made a huge jump from spring to summer, and now we’ll see where the ceiling is for him as a sophomore player.”
Tennessee’s lineup will be littered with guys who have come up with big hits for the Vols, but the strength of the team will be the same as last year: the pitching staff.
“Part of that is from Coach (Frank) Anderson’s ability to get the most out of those guys,” Vitello stated. “That’s where we return the most from last year if you look at statistics. We’ve got a lot depth and competition with that pitching staff.”
On the bump, Tennessee returns the likes of Zach Linginfelter, Will Neely, and Garrett Stallings. Those three guys have been inning-eaters for the Vols over the last couple of seasons. While the competition to be Tennessee’s Friday night starter is wide open, Stallings may be well on his way to nabbing that spot following his dominant summer league performance.
As one of the top pitchers in the Cape Cod League, Stallings posted a 21-0 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 18 innings of work. Teddy Cahill, a Baseball America writer, mentioned Stallings as one of the pitchers in the Cape who raised their profile over the summer.
“As a parent or a coach, you’re not supposed to have favorites, but Garrett Stallings is about as good of a kid as you’re going to find off and, on the field,” Vitello said. “I think where that harmed him last year is that I think he wanted the program to do so well and take this new staff to certain heights really quickly, and he just shouldered too much last year and it hurt him. Being able to go up there for the summer and to just say the heck with it, he experimented a little bit with his delivery, had no real pressure of wearing that Tennessee across his chest and just went out and did what he’s capable of doing, and what he’s capable of doing is great things.”
With the culture being built off the field and the team back on campus following a strong showing over the summer, Tennessee has shifted its focus to fall ball. For Vitello, that’s been refreshing because it gives the guys a chance to show what they can do.
“I think these guys have been given a little bit more of a cushion, and they’ve taken advantage of it,” Vitello said. “So far, the scrimmages have been well-played and fairly clean. We had a conversation last night about playing a little harder, but that’s never gonna go away.”
Other news and notes from Vitello’s fall media availability
Jay Charleston is another Vol who had a strong showing over the summer, hitting .315 in 34 games in the California Collegiate League. The junior had 14 multi-hit games while stealing 26 bases. Charleston played mostly second base a season ago, but after tying for the league-lead in stolen bases last year, he’ll be showcasing his speed in center field this season.
“Jay, with his speed, could certainly make that outfield seem a lot smaller than it really is,” Vitello said. “In last night’s scrimmage, he played four innings in center field, and one inning at second. So I think with him spending the majority of his time at second, we feel there’s room to be made up at center even though this summer he spent a lot of time out there. I would like for it to be an equal balance.”
Pete Derkay back to being himself
Derkay, Tennessee’s starting first baseman, spent last season nursing a hand injury that limited him at the plate. After spending the offseason on the shelf due to surgery, the junior is back to being himself according to Vitello.
“He’s himself, and it makes me feel better as a coach because now you have one more weapon that you really thought you had last year,” Vitello said. “Kudos to him, he used it as crutch every now and then, but it’s hard to blame him. He wasn’t himself. Overall, the fact that he battled through that whole deal last year speaks to his toughness, but also speaking on this year, we feel a lot better. He looks like himself.”
As Vitello said on Monday, Tennessee being allowed to scrimmage Georgia State and Alabama will make fall practice less boring this fall.
“These guys deserve an opportunity to size themselves up against other competition, and we’ll be able to do that against Georgia State on Sunday and a phenomenal opportunity for us against Alabama the day we play them in football,” Vitello said. “It should be a pretty cool environment. I’d like to think there will be people walking around here, tailgating, and wanting to see baseball or make a day of it. But we can show our freshmen and our JUCO transfers what an SEC opponent looks like. Coach Bohannan will have that team improved from last year, so our guys will understand that it’s serious, serious competition, but it’s also just baseball.”
Trevon Flowers, a safety in Jeremy Pruitt’s defense, also played baseball in high school and is expected to be with the baseball team in the spring. From Vitello’s vantage point, it’s been interesting to watch.
“I think Coach Pruitt really values guys that play multiple sports because they’re always competing, but also, to be a baseball player, you can’t have that adrenaline-rushing attitude all the time,” Vitello said. “It’s been fun watching some of the guys over there but also recruiting several two-sport athletes with that staff over there. I think a lot of that from all the sports is stemming from Coach Fulmer revitalizing the fact that when he was here, it was an all department effort with guys like him and Pat Summitt heading things up.”